Graham Kilmer
MKE County

County Grapples With 5G Infrastructure in Parks

State legislation has tied the county's hands over regulation of telecommunications infrastructure.

By - Aug 5th, 2020 04:57 pm
A crew installs 5G cellular equipment atop a utility pole in the Brewery District in April 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A crew installs 5G cellular equipment atop a utility pole in the Brewery District in April 2020. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

The Milwaukee County Board is moving cautiously as it continues to deal with impending 5G small cell wireless infrastructure on Milwaukee County parkland after state legislation stripped it of local control.

The new 5G cellular technology, short for fifth generation, requires towers placed at a much higher density than prior cellular technologies but in exchange is expected to provide a large increase in service speed.

In late 2019, the County Board was informed much of their power to control the placement and collect fees from installation of 5G small cell wireless infrastructure was curtailed by a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling, which was then codified into law by the Wisconsin State Legislature. 

At the time, Supervisor Steven Shea mused that the legislation, Act 14, seemed like it was written by lobbyists for telecommunication companies. It set very narrow limits within which local governments can regulate the permitting, fees and placement of the Small Wireless Facilities, or (SWFs). And it establishes that telecommunications companies have the right to put SWFs in the public right of way, which the legislation expands to include parkways, or on county-owned poles. It effectively forbids local governments from taking actions or enacting regulations “prohibiting wireless or wireline telecommunication services,” according to an April report from the Parks Department.

Several of these limits put a ceiling on the amount of revenue the county can generate as it surrenders parkland to telecommunications infrastructure. The infrastructure will take the form of poles, about every hundred feet, placed along parkways.

“The truth is were being screwed by the State of Wisconsin by this.. our costs, were the ones paying the staff, we’re the ones who go through our communities, we’re the ones who are going to have to review the licenses. And then we’re being told how much we can charge,” said Sup. Sheldon Wasserman in December.

And then there are the statutory shot-clock. When companies submit a permit for placement of an SWF on a new pole, the county has 90 days to respond, or else it’s automatically approved. The shot-clock is 60 days for co-location on a county-owned pole.

These rule changes at the federal level, which made their way into state statute, are part of a push coming from both the Trump administration and telecommunications companies to hasten the roll-out of 5G infrastructure across the country.

And now, the first waves of this policy are beginning to roll ashore in Milwaukee County. Right now, there are three pending applications for easements allowing Verizon Wireless to install fiber-optic cable through county parkland. One of these easements, along N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, would see the company run a mile or more of the cable through the parkland. 

There are already easements in county parks for fiber-optic cable that go back a decade, Jeremy Lucas, director of administration and planning for Milwaukee County Parks, told the Parks, Energy and Environment Committee in July. These easements wouldn’t just be for SWFs but also to expand Verizon’s fiber-optic network, said Tanya Rosin, manager of state government affairs for Verizon Wireless.

These cables will connect the SWFs to telecommunications networks throughout the parks system. And because of the way 5G networks operate, “they will need to be prolific”, placed every few hundred feet, Lucas told the committee in December 2019.

These SWFs are already popping up all over Milwaukee. They are commonly affixed to utility poles near intersections. But in the county’s parkland, where there aren’t many utility poles, companies will likely put up new poles. The 5G infrastructure that transmits the network “look like oversized coffee cans,” Lucas said.

And legally speaking, only one company is allowed to have its infrastructure on any given pole, whether that pole is owned by the city, county or a private party. So each company will require its own infrastructure.

There are two other easements before the board, one for 3,812 lineal feet in the Root River Parkway and another for 1,334 lineal feet in the Milwaukee River Parkway. The easements will allow Verizon Wireless to construct an underground telecommunications system in county parkland that future SWFs will be connected to.

At a committee meting in July, a parks department representative expressed support for the county board granting the easements. Lucas said the easement process gives the county more control over the placement of the cables. Erica Hayden, contracts manager for Milwaukee County Parks, said the easements before the board were negotiated to create a “very favorable” position for the county.

The committee opted to table the easements on the basis that they had just voted to approve a workgroup that will develop guidelines for the county as it grapples with the coming permits for the placement of these SWFs. The future guidelines, as defined by the board’s resolution, will seek to limit SWFs to areas that “do not impede upon historically designated locations, do not interfere with aesthetics in highly valued park spaces, do not obstruct views, are as minimally invasive as possible, and result in the highest revenues possible to the county.”

Shea, a sponsor of the resolution, said the state gave “very expansive rights” to the cell phone industry, and the workgroup would be an attempt to preserve some authority for the county in the inevitable placement of this infrastructure in county parks.

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